From the book: The Story of PR Pather, the grand old man of Indian politics in South Africa - by Riashnee Pather

Chapter One

Before embarking on an examination of PR's entry into public and political life at this time in Pietermaritzburg, I believe it is imperative to first examine closely the political environment at the time. As I have discussed in my introduction, the sources around this are far from adequate and what I hope to do here is to paint the most accurate picture that I can. And the point at which I wish to begin with is a very brief account of the Indian presence in South Africa, especially Natal, until about 1910. November 1860 saw the arrival of the first Indians in the colony of Natal and the beginning of a process that was to continue almost unabated right up until about 1911. The first Indians to immigrate were the indentured labourers, the people contracted to work on the sugar plantations because the Natal administration and the plantation owners had encountered difficulties in recruiting the local Africans for this work. Not all the Indians who immigrated to South Africa came as indentured labourers, as was evident from 1876 when 'passenger' Indians - Indians who had paid their own way - began to arrive, and not only from India but from Mauritius as well, as was the case with the Father family. Between 1860 and 1911 figures indicate that 152 184 Indians immigrated to South Africa of which about 75% chose to remain in the country. 6

What I wish to look more closely at however is the politics within and affecting the Indian community. What is most clear in the literature is that when examining political developments amongst the Indians it is not entirely accurate to look at the community as a single homogenous entity. The foremost political organisation to be associated with the Indians was the Natal Indian Congress (NIC), established on 22 August 1894. Despite its claims to uplift the position of the Indian community its work at the time of its inception was geared mostly towards the interests of the merchants and other wealthy businessmen. According to Maureen Swan it protested against discrimination and unjust treatment more as a class rather than a race. 7 The NIC consisted mainly of merchants and others with considerable economic interests and its establishment coincided directly with the South African government's increased threats to these interests. Much of the NIC's early campaigns were carried out at the expense of the grievances of the indentured and poorer Indians. Swan goes on to explain that when these grievances were picked up by the NIC, it was always to promote and protect the vested economic interests of a few well-placed Indians. This was a pattern that was to become a common practice for a considerable period in the history of the NIC. An example of this was the merchant's appeal at the turn of the century not to allow the establishment of responsible government in Natal, which would pose a serious threat to the merchants. The protests of the NIC used the poor position and ill treatment of the indentured Indians in Natal as justification for not allowing the establishment of responsible government. Furthermore those Indians in a superior economic position constantly sought to impose a distinction between themselves and the Indian masses and on more than one occasion protested anti-Indian discrimination against themselves without quite denouncing it when it was targeted against the rest of the Indian community, 8 The exclusionary nature of the NIC is further demonstrated when one looks at the question of membership dues. Membership fees were five shillings a month or three pounds a year and this was when the average income of the majority of Indians in the 1890's was about ten pounds a year. 9

The period between 1890 and 1920 in one in which there is not even a small hint of any common identification within the Indian community in South Africa. In regards to the political scene one of the highlights of this period was the strike initiated by Gandhi in 1913. The strike achieved a fair amount of success especially in terms of the number of people it mobilised. Within two weeks of the announcement of the strike it could count on the support of bout four to five thousand workers in Northern Natal. Although there have been many accounts that attribute this success to Gandhi and some sort of common identity and allegiance amongst Indians, this is not the case. Just like the Africans and the Coloureds at the time, the Indians had a very weak sense of community or any nationalist feeling for that sake. And so it is difficult to accept the picture of Gandhi mobilising thousands of workers along these lines. However what Swan does counter argue is that workers, both indentured and ex-indentured, had been resisting and protesting for a long time. However these protests were made through petty crime, destruction of tools etc. Furthermore many of these protests were individualistic and lacked any broader organisation. These workers believed that they could endure what they did just for five years after which their positions would change. Swan goes on to state that the reason Gandhi achieved the level of success that he did, was because he mobilised the people around economic issues, especially the three-pound tax which effectively prevented Indian workers from achieving any freedom after their contracts had expired. Even though Swan may be criticised for employing what may be termed an economically reductionist argument, I believe that she makes a lot of sense. The Indian community through the period in question cannot be credited with any sense of nationalist sentiment, a reality underpinned by the fact that many of the merchants and businessmen were very reluctant to get involved. 10

It is at this point that I wish to return to PR Pather. As a teenager he followed a path that many others in his position were to follow as well, that of joining cultural, religious and sporting groups, which were actually more representative of the broader Indian community. While still a schoolboy in Pietermaritzburg, PR began to take a strong interest in public affairs. He was made secretary of the Aryan Young Men's Progressive Association, an organisation that was to later establish the Aryan Benevolent Home in Pietermaritzburg 11. At the age of 19 he was also appointed secretary of the Young Men's Vedic Society, a position that he was to hold for twelve years. Around the same time he was appointed secretary of The Hindu-Tamil Institute. 12 It is important here to elaborate on the importance and significance of the various organisations that were established within the Indian community. I believe that they served as an outlet to the many Indians who were unable to really take any part in an elitist organisation like the NIC. According to Surendra Bhana, before the 1950's "religion was clearly the most important force in the lives of Indians", and hence the existence of so many religious and cultural organisations. 13 However I would tend to disagree with this statement since I believe that although religion was extremely important to most Indians, it was never as central as Bhana makes it out to have been. I propose that ultimately people were wary of slipping into a sense of apathy and generally took a greater interest in public and community affairs than generally exists today.

PR Pather then came to Durban to complete his matric, which he did but was prevented from fulfilling his aim to study law due to financial constraints. Nevertheless he began work for a big law firm, Clark & dark, where he gained considerable experience and a thorough working knowledge of the legal establishment. Not long after that he left the firm and began his own estate agency in Durban. In 1920 he married the daughter of a prominent jeweller who was also closely involved in community affairs especially with religious and cultural bodies. 14

In the early 1920's PR joined the NIC. Not as poor as the Indian masses, PR was part of that section of the NIC, which although not part of the merchant classes had nonetheless received a western orientated education and were employed in white collar jobs such as clerks and book keepers. Many had also studied abroad and were lawyers and doctors but had not come from a background of privilege, as many were children of indentured or ex-indentured labourers. This group of Indians who had risen in status and position had been active in NIC politics since the organisation's inception. 15

PR's influence and stature grew considerably in a short period and in 1924 he was appointed as one of the joint secretaries of the NIC. On the broader South African political scene, 1924 saw the coming to power of the Pact government under the leadership of the new Prime Minister JBM Herzog. This development resulted in an increase in Anti-Indian measures and legislation. According to Surendra Bhana the new government began introducing legislation regarding Indian trading licenses, immigration restrictions and segregation. These issues had been brought up by Smuts in the past but had generally been believed to be dealt with in the past. These measures were orchestrated so as to demonstrate to the Indians that there were more advantages to leaving South Africa if they decided to stay. 16 It was in light of these developments as well as Herzog's posed threat to the Indian municipal franchise in Natal that the NIC began a more vociferous protest campaign than had been undertaken in the past. Another important development was the formal establishment of the South African Indian Congress (SAIC) in 1924, of which PR is considered one of the founding members. 17 The SAIC was very influenced by the imperial factor and its actions and its protest campaigns were organised with much consultation with Nehru's Indian National Congress. In 1925 the SAIC sent a group of representatives to India to protest the government's legislation. This group had consultations with the Viceroy of India and the Indian government, who subsequently decided to send its own Paddison deputation in 1926. These exchanges were to lay the groundwork for the First Round Table Conference that began in early 1927. 18

The First Round Table Conference of 1926 - 1927 took place in Cape Town between the governments of South Africa and India. Although PR Pather did not attend as the SAIC was not allowed to participate or observe, it is nevertheless important to look at the Cape Town Agreement that emerged from the Conference because it consequences were to affect PR"s politics greatly. One of the most controversial aspects of the Cape Town Agreement concerned the repatriation of Indians and the appointment of an Indian Agent-General to oversee this proposed repatriation scheme as well as the position of the Indians who chose to remain in South Africa. The repatriation scheme was to cause much disillusionment and division within the Indian community even though most were happy with the appointment of Srinivasa Sastri as the first Indian Agent-General. 19

By 1933 the South African government realised that its repatriation scheme was not achieving the kind of success that they had hoped for. Not many Indians were very keen on returning to India. As a result the decision to hold a Second Round Table Conference was made in 1933. The NIC and the SAIC whose leadership still consisted disproportionately of merchants and other privileged sections of the Indian community agreed to co-operate with the government on this issue. They had accepted the proposal of the government to participate in a Colonisation Commission which would investigate the possibilities of repatriation of Indians not just to India but also even to the West Indians to places such as British Guyana and the Solomon Islands. 20

The appointment of this Commission and especially the NIC and SAIC's leadership decision to participate in it did not go unchallenged especially by those Indians who had been born in South Africa and considered themselves full South African citizens. Put in the words of CH Calpin, the biographer of AI Kajee:

The appointment of the Colonisation Commission split the Indian community asunder. It was the biggest thing that had happened since Mr. Gandhi had left the country. 21

The most serious development at the time was the split in the NIC with political heavyweights like Advocate Albert Christopher and PR Father breaking away to form the Colonial Born and Settler Indian Association (CBSIA) - this in opposition to the decision taken by the leadership of the NIC and the SAIC to participate with the government. It is clearly evident when examining these events and developments that PR at this time occupied a leftist position in Indian politics - a position which criticised the strongly elitist leadership of the NIC and SAIC, perhaps best personified by AI Kajee, for promoting themselves at the expense of the majority of Indians. 22

The CBSIA continued to be active only for about the next ten years. There is great difficulty in actually attempting to look closely at the various actors involved in developments because membership of the various groups were so fluid with members constantly moving from one to the other. However this is not to undermine the indisputable rift that existed within the Indian community at the time. This disunity was further exaggerated when the Muslim Agent General, Sir Raza Ali, married a local Hindu woman. According to Calpin this marriage across religious lines prompted all Hindus in the NIC to leave the organisation. I remain a bit sceptical of Calpin's explanation that stresses religious particularism especially on the part of the Hindus. His argument is undermined by his bias towards what he sees as the magnanimity of AI Kajee and his rational and reasonable attitude towards the Hindus who had left. 23 Furthermore in the interviews that I have conducted there is much agreement that the period in question was actually one characterised by inter-religious and inter-linguistic mixing. I strongly believe that division within the Indian community went much further than religious difference but the absence of more substantial sources prevents me from delving further.

However by 1938 the CBSIA was almost back within the NIC and the amalgamation of the two bodies at a mass meeting on 8 October 1939 at Curries Fountain resulted in the formation of a new organisation, the Natal Indian Association (NIA). Furthermore matters became more complicated when certain members of the NIC were reluctant to allow the formation of a new body and were in favour of retaining the old NIC. However by July 1943 the NIC and the NIA were formerly merged under the NIC structure and name. 24

The 1930's closed with a number of broader political forces sweeping through the world. The start of World War Two witnessed very divergent attitudes being formed within the Indian community. Some of the more conservative minded felt that they needed to pay allegiance to Britain and the allied war effort. Other, especially those who were involved in the South African Communist Party believed that the war should be denounced especially in light of the imperial interests that were involved. Closely tied into this were the increasingly loud calls for independence, emanating from the Asian subcontinent. The Indian community was again split along the lines of the more conservative and more progressive on this issue. These splits were to change the face of Indian politics in the 1940's, the character of which was to change considerably from what it was in the past.

The political developments that were playing themselves out on the global stage were to have an enormous impact on the broader arena of South African politics as well. For the Afrikaner nationalists World war Two marked one of the major turning points for them. The realignment of South African politics during the years of the war assisted their cause and for the first time they were able to make inroads into the Fusion government which had been established a 1934. The intensification of Afrikaner nationalism from the late 1930's onwards and the increasing number of conflicts with Smuts in those years was to affect Indian politics considerably. These issues will be covered in the next chapter.

1 See Ralph Trouillot. Silencing the Past: Power and Production of History. [Boston: Beacon Press, 1995]

2 The Leader. 12 December 1969

3 Interview with Ambiga Pather. 25/08/1998, Durban

4 The Leader. 12 December 1969.

5 Interview with Ambiga Pather. 25/08/1998 & The Leader. 12 December 1969.

6 Surendra Bhana and Joy B. Brain. Setting Down Roots. Indian Migrants in South Africa, I860 -1911. [Johannesburg: Witwatersrand University Press, 1990L pi 94

7 Maureen Swan. Gandhi: The South African Experience. [Johannesburg: Ravan, 1985], p 49

8 Maureen Swan, Gandhi: The South African Experience, p 42-44

9 Surendra Bhana. Gandhi's Legacy. The Natal Indian Congress. 1894 -1994. Pietermaritzburg: University of Natal Press, 1997], p 10

10 Maureen Swan. "Indentured Indians; Accommodation and Resistance, 1890 - 1913" in Surendra Bhana (ed). Essays on Indentured Indians in Natal. [Yorkshire: Peepal Tree Press, 1988] p 128-132 and Shula Marks and Stanley Trapido. "Introduction" in Marks and Trapido (eds.) The Politics of race, class and nationalism in twentieth century South Africa. [New York: Longman, 1987], p 3

11 The Graphic. 30 January 1970

12 Fiat Lux. February 1970. [Volume 5, No. I], p 8

13 Surendra Bhana. Gandhi 's Legacy. The Natal Indian Congress. 1894 -1994. P 137

14 Interview with Ambiga Pather, 25/08/1998

15 Maureen Swan. Gandhi: The South African Experience. P 5

16 Surendra Bhana. Gandhi 's Legacy. The Natal Indian Congress. 1894 -1994. P 34

17 The Graphic. 30 January 1970

18 Surendra Bhana. Gandhi 's Legacy. The Natal Indian Congress. 1894 -1994. P 35

19 C.H. Calpin. AI Kajee. His Work for the South African Indian Community. [Durban: Iqbal Study Group. N/D], p22

20 Surendra Bhana. Gandhi's Legacy. The Natal Indian Congress. 1894 -1994. P 36 ,.

21 C.H. Calpin. AI Kajee. His Work for the South African Indian Community, p 24

22 Surendra Bhana. Gandhi 's Legacy. The Natal Indian Congress. 1894 -1994. P 39

23 C.H. Calpin. AI Kajee. His Work for the South African Indian Community, p 32 - 40

24 C.H. Calpin. AI Kajee. His Work for the South African Indian Community, p 60 – 61